47 pages 1 hour read

Charles Dickens

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1870

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Summary and Study Guide


The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the final novel written by English novelist Charles Dickens. Dickens completed about half of the novel before he died in June 1870, and he had already begun publishing the novel in serial form. Because the novel revolves around the mysterious disappearance, and possible murder, of the titular character, many individuals have speculated about how Dickens would have resolved the mystery had he completed the text. In the existing portion of the novel, Dickens explores themes of jealousy, prejudice, and secrecy in a small community.

This guide references the 2009 Modern Library edition.

Content Warning: The novel and the guide reference drug addiction, colonialism, and racist beliefs.

Plot Summary

Most of the novel's plot takes place in the small fictional town of Cloisterham, England; Cloisterham is home to an Anglican cathedral (a church that is the seat of a high-ranking church official called a bishop). Many of the characters in the novel are in some way connected to the cathedral and employed by the Anglican church. John Jasper is a man in his mid-twenties who works as the choirmaster at the cathedral; he is close to his nephew, Edwin Drood, especially since Edwin is an orphan and only a few years younger than Jasper. When Edwin was very young, his father came to an agreement with the father of a young girl named Rosa Bud, and Edwin and Rosa are expected to marry. In addition to his planned marriage, Edwin is expected to eventually travel to Egypt and work as an engineer.

Edwin and Rosa are both unhappy because they are not well-suited to one another and don't want to get married. The small, close-knit community of Cloisterham is unsettled by the arrival of two siblings, Neville and Helena Landless, who live under the guardianship of the Reverend Crisparkle. Neville is hot-tempered and quickly takes a dislike to Edwin, especially since Neville is attracted to Rosa and resents Edwin for not appreciating his beautiful fiancée. Meanwhile, Rosa becomes close friends with Helena and confides that she is frightened of John Jasper, who seems to display an obsessive fascination with her. John Jasper regularly consumes opium, and he engages in a series of suspicious actions, including looking for secret hiding places in and around the cathedral.

Just before Christmas, Rosa tells Edwin that she does not want to marry him. Both Edwin and Rosa are relieved by this decision, but they decide not to tell anyone right away. Edwin has dinner with John and Neville on Christmas Eve. The dinner, arranged by Crisparkle with Jasper's help, is a means to reconcile Edwin and Neville. The next morning, Jasper raises alarm in the village: His nephew has disappeared and was last seen with Neville. Neville explains that he parted from Edwin on good terms and has no idea what happened to him.

The townspeople never find Edwin’s body, but after some of Edwin's personal items are retrieved from the river, most people assume that he has been murdered. Jasper vows to find the killer and get revenge. There is not enough evidence for Neville to be charged with any crime, but most people turn against him. Neville moves to London and prepares to study law. Six months pass. Jasper confesses his love to Rosa, who reacts with horror and flees to London to get away from him. In London, Rosa seeks help from her guardian, a lawyer named Grewgious. Grewgious, Crisparkle, and a man named Tartar (an old friend of Crisparkle) work together to ensure that Rosa's whereabouts are not discovered, especially since Jasper is known to lurk around the location where Neville lives in London.

Shortly after Rosa leaves for London, a new character named Datchery arrives in Cloisterham. He has some interest in Jasper, but it is not clear why. After Jasper visits an opium den in London, an elderly woman who works at the den secretly follows him back to Cloisterham. The woman has known Jasper since before Drood's disappearance and has visited Cloisterham once before. She also allegedly interacted with Edwin Drood on the day he went missing. In the final scene, the elderly woman (referred to as “Princess Puffer”) attends a service at the cathedral after Datchery tells her that Jasper will be there. Princess Puffer hides and watches Jasper, while Datchery observes the scene with great interest.